Lightning coach Jon Cooper tries to downplay expectations
Despite losing star player Steven Stamkos for four months with a broken leg and trading captain Martin St. Louis, the Tampa Bay Lightning surprised the NHL and posted the third-best record in the Eastern Conference. Now, after acquiring a group of veterans during the offseason, the Lightning enter 2014-15 among the favorites to make a prolonged run in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Just don't expect their coach to say so.
"Make us seem like just a nice, humble, go-lucky Tampa Bay Lightning," Jon Cooper told NHL.com. "Not like we're going to come out and kick everybody's [behind]."
Last season, Cooper discovered a franchise goaltender, Ben Bishop, and led Tampa Bay, which played nine rookies, to the playoffs for the first time in three years. In his first full season, Cooper was named a finalist for the Jack Adams Award as the NHL's top coach.
"As a staff, we would joke about it a little bit. On the calendar year, it was less than a year, but it felt like five seasons in one," Cooper said. "We knew to expect the unexpected but we didn't know it was going to come at us like that."
Being swept by the Montreal Canadiens in the Eastern Conference First Round exposed a lack of veteran savvy, so general manager Steve Yzerman orchestrated some valuable offseason additions. He acquired defenseman Jason Garrison in a trade with the Vancouver Canucks before signing defenseman Anton Stralman, goaltender Evgeni Nabokov, and forwards Brian Boyle and Brenden Morrow as free agents.
"We probably made more moves than people thought we would make. But we needed to address some issues at certain positions," Cooper said. "A lot of our season may have been masked by some outstanding goaltending by Ben Bishop, but the playoffs was a bit of a wake-up call for us.
"All of a sudden you tweak your lineup a little bit and people are expecting the world out of your team. It's funny how that works. Because it was just 12 months ago we were looked at as a bottom-feeder in the League. Now I want to see how much we've grown from our playoff experience and through this summer. I'm really excited to see if this team can take another step."
It's easy to forget Cooper inherited a team with the League's worst record when he was hired by Tampa Bay on March 25, 2013. He was nine months removed from a Calder Cup championship with its American Hockey League affiliate in Norfolk and 14 years removed from leaving his career as a lawyer to take his first coaching job at Lansing (Mich.) Catholic Central High School.
Cooper groomed many of his players from the AHL into NHL regulars. Ten players from the Calder Cup-winning team in Norfolk played at least 13 games with Tampa Bay last season, including forwards Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat, who were named finalists for the Calder Trophy as the NHL rookie of the year.
"That's probably in part why we had some of the success we had this past year. Because we've been together," Cooper said. "We all came into the pros together, we won a Calder Cup together, we have pretty much gone to the NHL together and made the playoffs together. I've watched these guys basically go from boys to men in the NHL and it's been a lot of fun to be a part of that. It would just make it all that much more special if you can keep priming them to get to the peak of the NHL."
Tampa Bay's veteran acquisitions, not to mention a healthy Stamkos, should assist Cooper in that quest. But the true challenge will be maintaining the underdog mindset that helped turn the Lightning into one of the NHL's feel-good stories of 2013-14.
"As a group, you had a bunch of guys that haven't really been in the NHL long enough to know any better. Then our new additions really come with a lot of playoff experience," Cooper said. "The one thing we're looking for is, can we be a better hockey team than we were last year? I don't think how many points you get in the regular season is a judge of that. We'll know if we're a better hockey team if we have an opportunity to make the playoffs.
"If we are fortunate enough to make the playoffs, can we go farther than we did last year? I think we've got a group that really wants to try to take the next step. That's what we're looking for."
Cooper, 46, is happy to talk about what he'd like to see from a team expected to be atop the Eastern Conference standings this season. One thing he won't do is predict a point total, and he certainly won't talk about Stanley Cup aspirations. The sting from the Montreal sweep lingers just enough to keep him from doing that. It was so disappointing Cooper refused to watch hockey for three weeks after Tampa Bay was eliminated.
For now, all he wants is another chance to get back to the postseason. That's why Cooper has one simple request for all the members of the media beginning to compile their preseason NHL predictions.
"All I ask is don't blow us up to be something we're not," Cooper said. "That's the one thing I don't want people to do."